October 28, 2018

Cliff's Edge--The Irony of God: Part Two

In “The Irony of God: Part One” I used examples from Scripture that showed the ironic edge to God’s character, and then recounted my own experience with that edge. In this column I will use more biblical examples of this irony, then tell another personal story.

In the account of the young man blind from birth whom Jesus healed, the Scribes and the Pharisees, indignant that Jesus performed the miracle on Sabbath, declared: “We know that God spoke to Moses, but for this fellow, we don’t even know where He comes from” (John 9:29).

“Now that is remarkable!” the one healed instantly responded. “You don’t know where he comes from; yet He opened my eyes!” (verse 30).

What is “remarkable”? The miracle itself, perhaps the greatest since the Egyptians got bushwhacked in the Red Sea? No, their disbelief in the One who did the miracle—that “remarkable” thing!

The irony, so deep, so sarcastic, explodes into in-your-face mockery.

Perhaps the most tragic example unfolded at the cross, where Jesus—the Son of God, the King of Israel, the Christ—was heckled by the crowd, who derided His identity as the “son of God” (Matt. 27:40), the “king of Israel” (Matt. 27:42), and the “Messiah” (Mark 15:32).

Imagine the bitterness when they eat those words, irony and all.

Now jump ahead 2,000 years, to yours truly, a Seventh-day Adventist who, though believing in great controversy metaphysics, nevertheless struggled with questions about evil and tragedy. In light of God’s goodness and omnipotence, why the absurd parade of human woe—why so much meaningless and redemptive-less suffering—which has strewn across millennia the debris of lives that culminate as rotting flesh, anyway? And how are we to understand this same God, dwelling in the bliss of heaven, enjoying the worship of seraphim, cherubim, and whoever else is floating around there while so many of us, weighed down here, go through life as if tied to, and dragged behind, the bumper of a truck?

Within this context years ago I had been reading an experimental novel by my uncle, David Markson (1927-2010). A sophisticated Greenwich Village über atheist, Uncle David in his book quoted the überest atheist of the last millennia, Frederick Nietzsche (1844-1900). Despising Christianity, Nietzsche railed against the West’s adherence to Christian morality (which he dubbed a “slave morality”) after the West had pretty much discarded the Christian God. Nietzsche’s influence has been so widespread that even today after some pimply teenager shoots up his high school, either Nietzsche or the removal of the Ten Commandments from classroom walls get blamed—as if only little Billy had read “Thou shalt not kill” instead of Thus Spake Zarathustra or Beyond Good and Evil he would have put away his AR-15 and quietly returned to French class.

The Nietzsche quote, though—“In the end, one experiences only oneself”—helped me so much. Just as we secrete only our own sweat, or sneeze only through our own nose, we feel only our own pain, only our own hurt, never another’s. The tears that you shed over someone else’s tragedy are your tears alone; the pain that you feel for them is yours, not theirs. You experience only what your own nerves, what your own chemicals in your own blood and own cells allow you to—not a whimper, not a sniffle, more. There’s no sum total of human suffering any more than there’s a sum total of sore throats. Our personal pain is never added up into one lump sum. The billions who have lived and died, even who died in bulk, knew no more pain than an individual could know.

One exception: the God dwelling “in the bliss of heaven, enjoying the worship of seraphim, cherubim, and whoever else is floating around there” left it all and went to the cross, where He hads “borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows” (Isa. 53:4, KJV). Whose griefs? Whose sorrows? Christ died for the whole world, which meant that He bore the world’s griefs, the world’s sorrows. At Calvary Christ experienced corporately what every human being can know only individually. God in Christ, at the cross, suffered more than any human being ever has or will.

The image before us, of Christ, of God on the cross bearing all the griefs and sorrows of the world while we can know only our own personal grief and sorrows (“In the end, one experiences only oneself”) has helped me, at least somewhat, deal with the hard questions of suffering.

And I have Uncle David quoting, of all people, Frederick Nietzsche, to thank.

The irony, the outrageous irony of it all.

Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His latest book, Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity, is published by Pacific Press.